by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller
“Wilderness or wildlands are natural environments on Earth that have not been significantly modified by human activity or any non-urbanized land not under extensive agricultural cultivation.”
Well that is one description we found online but the word “wilderness” is often used and indeed misused. Do we have any wilderness left here in the UK? Well, very little if any at all. Perhaps the tops of the highest peaks of our mountains could be described as wilderness? But in our minds a wilderness conjures up a whole landscape of “wild” land not just a small area surrounded by manmade landscapes. So no, we don’t have any real wilderness in the UK but that does not mean we don’t have wonderful wild places.
In September this year we were lucky enough to visit a very special place in the Scottish Highlands.
The Alladale Wilderness Reserve, about an hour north of Inverness, is indeed a wild place, especially on the day we visited it! Howling gales and torrential rain were the order of the day but even these “wild” conditions did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for this inspiring place.
The estate was once a hunting estate, for deer stalking, and the land had been managed to produce lots of deer. It was intensively grazed, by not just deer but sheep as well, and as a result the wildlife has suffered. Many tourists that visit the Highlands of Scotland look at these dramatic barren landscapes and assume they are natural, but this if far from the truth. In fact these lands were cleared of their tree cover thousands of years ago by man.
But at Alladale we were able to see a glimpse of what the future could look like on these barren Highland hills. In the last ten years over one million, yes you read that right, one million trees have been planted in the first steps to returning this remarkable landscape back to a more natural habitat. Of course this is a very long term project, the growing season for trees this far north is very short so progress is frustratingly slow, but the signs are there. The bottoms of some of the glens now have good growth of saplings, and the deer have been excluded so the trees can grow unaffected by their grazing. We were amazed at the contrast between the planted areas and the non-planted areas – not only a much more natural look to the glens, this tree growth also offers huge benefits to wildlife.
But there is so much more than just tree planting happening at this inspiring estate! Rivers and wetlands are being managed to increase the number of breeding waders, such as beautiful Golden Plover and Greenshank. Red squirrels have been reintroduced and they have a reintroduction programme for Scottish wild cats. The estate has breeding Golden Eagles and plans to encourage White-tailed Eagles to return to these beautiful glens. Plus, their very own organic garden supplies fresh vegetables to the estate kitchen, and they offer spectacular holiday accommodation so you can enjoy this spectacular place yourself.
Alladale is a place to inspire and give us all hope for the future, something we very much need right now. We will be returning to this wonderful part of the Scottish Highlands, hopefully in better weather, to see how the project develops but it will be future generations that will see the “wilderness” return to this amazing place. It may be a manmade version of true wilderness but it is so much better than the barren, over-grazed landscape that covers so much of the Scottish Highlands today. At Alladale there is real hope for nature, and for us.
But of course all this does not happen without people to deliver these changes and the owner and the staff at Alladale Wilderness Reserve are as inspiring as the project itself. We were fortunate to have a full day guided tour of the estate by the manager Innes, who was not only a fount of knowledge but one of the most enthusiastic people we have ever met. For Innes, a former deer stalker on this very estate, it is so much more than a job. It is a passion and a burning passion at that. The man is driven to deliver this landscape scale improvement to his home glens and we wish him every success.
Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, Birdwatching Trips and Leica Ambassadors.